January 17, 2018

Why We Celebrate the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great on January 17th

By John Sanidopoulos

In the Synoptic Gospels we read that immediately after Jesus was baptized, He was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by the devil. The Lord spent forty days of complete abstinence in the desert, where He faced the temptations of the devil, and overcame them all.

In imitation of the Lord, Euthymios the Great in the early fifth century would annually leave his Palestinian monastery for the inner desert after the leavetaking of the feast of Holy Theophany, which was January 14th, in order to face the temptations of the devil, "sundered from all human intercourse and yearning to consort with God in solitude through prayer." He would return to his monastery from his sojourn in the desert on Palm Sunday, in order to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with his fellow monks and disciples. This is most likely the origins of the period of Great Lent, based on the forty day fast of the Lord following His baptism.

In the Life of Saint Euthymios written by Cyril of Scythopolis, we read that before his death he was granted to know in advance the day of his repose. He died on January 20th, which was a Saturday. On the Tuesday before, January 16th, we read that the Saint ordered a final vigil before his departure to be celebrated in the monastery in memory of Saint Anthony the Great. Though we do not know for sure, this may indicate the origins of the feast of Saint Anthony the Great as being established by Saint Euthymios on January 17th.

The tradition of Euthymios to annually retreat into the desert after the leavetaking of Holy Theophany was kept alive following his death by his disciples, most notably by Savvas the Sanctified. However, there was one slight change made by Savvas, which we read about in the Life of Saint Savvas also by Cyril of Scythopolis:

"The solitary and bishop John, great in virtue, told me that our holy father Savvas was eager to follow in every way the manner of life of the great Euthymios. So, since the latter had been accustomed at an appointed time in January to retire to the utter desert and spend Lent there, he would depart, slightly altering the custom, after the commemoration of Saint Anthony: he would celebrate the commemoration of the great Euthymios, which is celebrated on 20 January, and then immediately retire to the utter desert, withdrawing from all human society until Palm Sunday. This he did almost every year."

It seems, therefore, that Euthymios established the feast of Saint Anthony for January 17th in order to encourage both himself and his disciples for their own ascetical sojourn in the desert, which was in imitation of Saint Anthony, who is known as the first monk to journey into the innermost or utter desert in pursuit of a pure solitary life with God. In this way, those who followed this practice, would not only have the Lord as an example to imitate, but also a servant of the Lord in the person of Anthony to imitate.

A remnant of this journey into the inner desert of the Palestinian monks still survives in the Triodion, which is a book that contains the hymns and services of Great Lent. Thus on the Friday before Palm Sunday, we chant the following hymn during Matins:

"Those in the deserts and mountains and caves, hasten to gather with us palm-bearers, to meet the King and Master, who comes to save our souls."

Likewise at Vespers on the Saturday before Palm Sunday we chant the following hymn in reference to this Synaxis of the Holy Fathers after their sojourn in the desert:

"Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, has gathered us together, and all of us who take up Your cross, say, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest."

As Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite explains: "These thrice-blessed Fathers would take up the cross of the Lord on their shoulders by their ascetic struggles, and the suffering of monastic conduct."

Even in our context today, for both monastics and non-monastics, the feast of Saint Anthony falling on January 17th can serve for us as an example to imitate him as we soon embark on the journey of Great Lent.